Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Sunset Storm - An Uncharitable Review by Poe (or one of his flunkies)

Having recently posted some samples of my poetry, I thought that this contemporary review of my poem "A Sunset Storm", printed in January of 1843 and assumed to be written by Edgar Allan Poe (but may have been written by one of his friends, such as Henry Beck Hirst), might be of interest.  It is most unkind, but never let it be said that I attempt to obfuscate criticisms of myself or my work.  Enjoy.

The review of my poem is intermingled with the much longer THE POETS AND POETRY OF AMERICA. WITH AN HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION. BY RUFUS W. GRISWOLD. THIRD EDITION. REVISED, WITH ILLUSTRATIONS. CAREY & HART: PHILADELPHIA.  The excerpted portion transcribed below contains the passages relevant to my poem.

[Text: Philadelphia Saturday Museum, January 28, 1843.]

Is it fair to condemn Mr. Griswold’s ability to act as a judge and critic of our poets without examining into his poetical and critical competency? Certainly not; and in the premises we shall act justly, generously, and impartially. “Just!” we think we hear our poet exclaim, like the man arraigned for horse-stealing, when told by his judge he should have justice done him. “Justice! please your Honor’s glory — that’s the very thing I don’t want.” Mr. G., however, claims to be a poet, and deduces from that position his competency to judge of the poetry of others. Let us apply the touchstone to his latest acknowledged article, “THE SUNSET STORM,” published in his (Graham’s) Magazine, September, 1842; and if that does not prove him to possess as little of the divine afflatus, artistical skill, and knowledge of plain English construction, as a Desert of Sahara Arab, let our criticism go for naught.

We shall premise with a short notice of the art of versification; an art which our best poets are ignorant of, or wilfully misunderstand, and which our first writers on Prosody have entirely misrepresented. Cooper, whose grammar is extensively used, defines it to be “The arrangement of a certain number of syllables according to certain laws,” yet lays down no laws for its government, but drops the subject, fearful of burning his fingers. Indeed, all the writers on Prosody, from Brown to Murray, have almost entirely waived the subject, while the little they have said is founded on, and consequently, a mass of — error.

VERSIFICATION is the art by which various feet of equal quantity, though differing in the number of syllables, are arranged in harmonious order, and made to form verse. POETRY, in its most confined sense, is the result of versification, but may be more properly defined as the rhythmical personification of existing or real beauty. One defines it as the “rhythmical creation of beauty;” but though it certainly is a “creation of beauty” in itself, it is more properly a personification, for the poet only personifies the image previously created by his mind.

FEET are the parts of verse by which, when harmoniously associated, the reader steps along, as it were, in a measured manner, through the whole. They are composed of one, two, or three variously accented and unaccented syllables. The only feet admitted by our language are the Iambus, Trochee, Dactyl, Anapaest, and Cæsura. The Tribrach, Amphibrach, and Pyrrhic, though adopted in English Prosody by very erudite writers, never did and never can exist in its poetry. Of these hereafter. We shall use the old marks, a [—], to mark the accented, or long, and the [circ], to mark the unaccented, or short syllables, in our notice of their various kinds.

The IAMBUS is composed of two syllables, one short and one long; as,

“I stand | beneath | the mys | tic moon.”

The TROCHEE, of the same number, but exactly the reverse of the former; as,

“In the | greenest | of our | valleys.”
Here “of” is made long by emphasis.
“In a | sunny, | smiling | valley,”

is a better exemplification of the Trochee.

The SPONDEE is composed of two long syllables; as, “wild wood,” “pale moon,” “wind sown,” and is only used to prevent monotony, or to produce some striking effect in versification. In the commencement of verse the Trochee is preferable. It is likewise the only foot, with the exception of the Cæsura, which cannot be used to form continuous verse. Longfellow thought it might, and murdered harmony most horribly in attempting English Hexameter, a species of verse which, though beautiful in the Latin, can never be introduced in our language, owing to its wanting a sufficient number of Spondees. A language correctly described by Holmes as —

“Our grating English, whose Teutonic jar
Shakes the rack’d axle of Art’s rattling car.”

The DACTYL is a foot composed of three syllables, two short, preceded by one long; as,

“Ragged and | weary one, | where art thou | travelling?”

The ANAPAEST is the converse of the Dactyl; as,

“On a rock | by the O | cean, all lone | ly and sad.”

The CÆSURA — the word is from the Greek, and signifies “a pause “ — is a foot composed of one long syllable, equal in quantity to, that is, occupying the same time in pronunciation as, the Dactyl, Anapaest, Iambus, or Trochee. It is properly used in English poetry to give a sonorous close to, or to produce a striking and forcible commencement in verse. We shall give an example from Longfellow, who uses it in the latter case, without knowing of its existence, as a distinct fact.

“In the I market | place of | Bruges | stand the | belfry, | old and | brown.”

Here, by reading the verse, the ear will observe that “brown,” which is the Cæsura, consumes the same time as any of the Trochees of which the line is composed. 

All our Prosodists define the Cæsura (and we give the definition in our own words, as it is impossible to form an idea of its use from theirs) as a pause introduced for the purpose of producing harmony, in a single verse or couplet, between “two members of the same verse,” by which the one is placed in direct comparison with the others; as,

“See the bold youth″ strain up the threat’ning steep,
Rush through the thickets,″ down the valleys sweep.”

(″) Being the marks by which they designate the Cæsura which they use, as will be readily perceived, only in an elocutionary sense.

We too use the Cæsura as a pause — a pause compelled by the position of, and upon the foot — of the voice, which renders it equal in quantity to any of the larger feet, and at the same time gives to the close of the verse, where it is most frequently found, a singular richness, as well as sonorous fulness and force. When the Cæsura terminates a verse, the poet can immediately step in the next into another species of foot without producing the slightest discord. The following is an example of its commencing and concluding a stanza:

March! | March! | March!
From the | yawning | grave they | come;
And | thousands | rise, with | lidless | eyes,
As | taps the | fun’ral | drum.
Heavi | ly their | white arms | swinging, |
Clatter, | clatter | on they | go;
Up in | curling | eddies | flinging |
High the | fleecy | snow. 

It will be seen that this stanza is scanned precisely as if it were written in one continuous verse, which is the proper mode in, and peculiar to our language; as,

March ! | March ! \ March ! | From the | yawning | grave they I come, and | thousands | rise with | lidless | eyes as | taps the | funeral | drum.

the arrangement of the same depending entirely upon the will of the poet.

The Cæsura has been used, “time out of mind,” by all our poets, but with a perfect ignorance of its present character. This discovery, as well as that of the above mode of scansion, was left to Edgar A. Poe, who has spent more time in analyzing the construction of our language than any living grammarian, critic, or essayist. The following is an example of his use of this foot in the “Haunted Palace”:

“In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace
(Snow-white palace) reared its head.

“In the monarch Thought’s dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.”

With this brief analysis, sufficient to explain the subject, we return to the examination of the “Sunset Storm.”

The sum | mer sun | has sunk | to rest

Very fair, Mr. G.

Below | the green | clad hills.

This is Iambic, the simplest of all verse; yet in the second verse, or as Mr. G. would call it, the second “ line,” we have a positive error. “Green clad hills “ are three consecutive long syllables, and “clad hills” being a Spondee, has no business in that position in the verse. Mr. Griswold commences with a quiet picture of the sun sinking to rest, which the sun always does quietly, as he ought; and the second should, consequently, harmonize with the preceding verse, to carry out the idea. “Green clad hills “ is as harsh as the grating of a coffee-mill.

“The summer sun has sunk to rest
Below the ‘lofty’ hills,”

or any other sort of “hills,” where the adjective is an Iambus, would make it melody. Let us proceed:

“And through | the skies | career | ing fast,
The storm | cloud rides | upon | the blast,
And now | the rain | distills.”

Here the same error is again repeated, “ storm-cloud” being, like “green-clad,” a compound word, and distil is spelt with two “ll’s.”

“The flash | we see, | the peal | we hear,
With winds | blent in | their wild | career.”

“Blent in “ is the most horrible massacre of harmony we ever encountered. It is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl; neither a Spondee, Trochee, or an Iambus; and, deuce take us! if we know what to make of it. In Christian charity, Mr. G., enlighten us!

“Till pains | the ear.”

A most appropriate verse. It certainly pains our ear to proceed with the next.

“It is | the voice | of the | Storm-King.”

Did any one ever read such delectable doggerel? Did any one ever see such a number of short syllables collected in one “line,” or see such a line published, with a grave face, as poetry? We defy even Mrs. Wood to sing it musically. “The voice” is the only legitimate Iambus in the whole line. “It is,” we are compelled to read “It is,” to make the verse read musically. “Of the” is a Trochee, unless Mr. G. would have us read “of the,” which, from the versification precedent and subsequent, we should imagine he wishes us to do. “Storm-King” is another compound word, and a Spondee.

“Leading | his ban | ner’d hosts | along | the sky,
And drench | ing with | his floods | the ster | ile lands | and dry.”

Here we have a Trochee, “leading,” commencing the verse. This is not objectionable, for it expresses an action — “leading his banner’d hosts.” Its introduction frequently produces a fine artistical and highly poetical effect, and the poet’s as well as the reader’s ear is the best judge when it should be used. We will give one or two examples, since we are riding our favorite horse of versification.

“And loud | ly on | the ev’ | ning’s breath,
Rang the | shrill cry | of sud | den death!” 

“Rang the,” a Trochee, followed by the Spondee “shrill cry,” expresses forcibly the actual presence and force of the sound on the breath, that is, over the low murmur of the evening wind. Again, in Byron’s “Childe Harold,”

“The sky | is changed | and such | a change ! | O night!
And storm | and dark | ness! Ye | are wond | rous strong,
Yet love | ly in | your strength | as is | the light
Of a | dark eye | in wo | man. Far — along
From peak | to peak | her rat | tling crags | among
Leaps the | live thun | der! Not | from one | lone cloud,”

Here is the same definite expression of passion and action in “of a dark eye,” and “leaps the live thunder.” You can feel the loveliness of the eye, and hear the crash of, and see the thunder leaping. How different are Mr. Griswold’s and Lord Byron’s descriptions of a storm!

We copy from the same magazine that contains the “Sunset Storm,” for Mr. Griswold’s especial edification, a fine specimen of Iambic verse, and advise him when next he uses that “foot,” to take it as a model. It is from the “ Haunted Heart,” by a Miss Mary L. Lawson, whose ear seems to be nearly faultlessly correct.

“Ne’er from his heart the vision fades away;
Amid the crowd, in silence and alone,
The stars by night, the clear blue sky by day,
Bring to his mind the happiness that’s flown; 
A tone of song, the warbling of the birds,
The simplest thing that memory endears,
Can still recall the form, the voice, the words
Of her, the best beloved of early years.”
In the same poem we find the following highly finished and descriptive lines:
“And watched the rippling currents at they played
In ebb and flow upon the banks of rivers.”
We stand as it were, upon the river’s bank!

We mentioned something before of the use of Spondees in Latin Hexameter, and to make our position perfectly understood, shall quote a few examples from different authors.

“In nova | fert an i | mus mu | ta t as | di cere | rbrmas
Corpora | Di coep | tis nam | vos mu | tastis et | il las.”
“Tityre | tu patu | lac recu | bans sub | tegmine | fagi.”
“Nox ru it | et fus | cis tel | lurem, | plectitur | al is.” — IBID.
This last line is written
“Nox ruit et fuscis tellurem amplectitur alis.”

But in the words where “um,” “am,” “em,” or a vowel, occur, the syllable is taken off by elision. Again, where the line commences with a Spondee,

“Felix | qui potu | it re | rum cog | noscere | causas.”
Ergo. Mr. Griswold ought to be happy in knowing his book to be the cause of our review. 

Now, gentle reader, is Mr. Griswold a versifier? — we have not touched him as a Poet, — and if not, and we assert he is not, and never was able to understand the first principles of versification, what shall be said of his presumption in becoming the judge of a race of men whose simplest productions are beyond his comprehension? We have more of his poetry (spirits of Pope, Byron, et al., forgive our desecration of the name!) on hand, but in none can we find two correct consecutive lines, nor do we wish to inflict them on the reader. But we have not yet done with the “Sunset Storm.” Independent of its worse than tyro-like versification, it is a heterogeneous compound of sheer, naked nonsense and rank bombast. We shall examine the first verse, that which we have already submitted to scansion, and then, if any one deems Mr. G. a competent judge of true poetry, we hope he will inflict one of his collections upon him annually. Now for it!

“The summer sun has sunk to rest
Below the green-clad hills,
And through the skies careering fast,
The storm-cloud rides upon the blast,
And now the rain distills.”

We pause to credit Mr. G. with a new idea — the clouds distilling rain. We have heard of men distilling whiskey, alcohol, &c., but never before of clouds distilling rain.

“The flash we see, the peal we hear,
With winds blent in their wild career,
Till pains the ear.”

“The flash” of what do we see? “The peal” of what do “we hear”? Is lightning and thunder to be understood, or is it the flash and peal of the storm?  If the latter is meant, it is another new idea. If the former — but it is not said, — how can “winds” be “blent in” with a flash of lightning? Mr. G., Mr. G., you are as mystical as Kant, and as incomprehensible as Wordsworth, without possessing the slightest claim to the common sense of either.

“It is the voice of the storm-king
Riding upon the lightning’s wing.”
We are now informed that this “ blent in “ mixture is
— “ the voice of the storm-king
Riding upon the lightning’s wing.”

and we are happy to hear it. It is no wonder dairywomen complain of their milk being curdled the morning after a storm.

“Leading his banner’d hosts along the sky,
And drenching with his floods the sterile lands and dry.”

Is this even good grammar? Is it “ the voice” or “the Storm King” “leading his banner’d hosts along the sky”? Tell us that!

Did any one ever read such nonsense? We never did, and shall hereafter eschew everything that bears Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s name, as strongly as the Moslemite the forbidden wine, or the Jew the “unmentionable flesh.” But we must say, ere we leave the “Sunset Storm,” that, with the exception of Mathews’ “Wakondah,” Pop Emmons’ “Fredoniad,” and some portions of Hoffman’s “Vigil of Faith,” the world never even saw such balderdash.

We defined Poetry “to be the rhythmical personification of existing or ideal beauty;” and here we shall give a vivid example of our idea, an example which even Mr. Griswold acknowledges “to possess a statue-like definitiveness and warmth of coloring.” It is the “Sleeping Beauty,” by Tennyson, — the most perfect conception of loveliness we ever saw, or ever expect to see, and had Tennyson written nothing else, it would have made him immortal.

“Year after year unto her feet,
(She lying on her couch alone,)
Along the purple coverlet
The maiden’s jet-black hair has grown;
On either side her tranced form
Forth streaming from a braid of pearl;
The slumbrous light is rich and warm,
And moves not on the rounded curl.

The silk, star-broider’d coverlet
Unto her limbs itself doth mould
Languidly ever; and, amid
The full black ringlets downward rolled,
Glows forth each softly-shadow’d arm
With bracelets of the diamond bright;
Her constant beauty doth inform
Stillness with love, and day with light.

She sleeps ! her breathings are not heard,
In palace chambers far apart
The fragrant tresses are not stirred
That lie upon her charmed heart.
She sleeps! on either hand up swells
The gold-fring’d pillow lightly prest:
She sleeps, nor dreams, but ever dwells,
A perfect form, in perfect rest.”

In the first place, this is a legitimate subject of poetry, finished with the highest artistical skill, burning with genius and ideality, and secondly it conveys to the mind in the very title that richest image of loveliness — a sleeping woman! Words cannot convey our conception of its beauty, nor our homage to the genius of its author. The italicised lines are the finest passages.


I here append some similarly hostile words pertaining to my poem "Sights From My Window-Alice", written by Jesse E. Dow, another of Poe's goons, and printed in The Washington Independent for June 2, 1842:

“We have often asked those whose course of light reading was more extensive than our own, to tell us what Rufus W. Griswold, the self-constituted critic among the poets of his country, had written; but no one could name a. piece of his composition of the length of a brad.  Judge, then, of our surprise, upon opening the Magazine of the intellectual and indefatigable Graham for June, to find Rufus W. Griswold’s Addled Egg — and such an egg! — no wonder the press crackled when such a pullet laid. It would have caused the muses to forsake Helicon in the days of Grecian glory, and made Homer himself forget his rhapsodies, and open his blind old eyes to behold it… Mr. Rueful Grizzle, the Sight seer… the greatest poet of America — the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold, L.L.D. and A.S.S.”

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